(This one starts out as a stereotypical Relief Society Magazine romance — but give it a few episodes, and it will blossom into something more.)
From the Relief Society Magazine, 1952-53 –
A Time to Forget
By Fay Tarlock
“I’m awfully sorry,” Serena Abbe said. She bent to pick up her pencil which had dropped to the floor. “Will you start again, please?”
“I hadn’t started,” Mr. Green said. He took off his glasses to rest his eyes and carefully scrutinized Serena’s face. He was a man in his late sixties with white hair and a rosy face. With his right hand he twisted a tuft of his white hair until it stood erect, giving his face the look of a benign old owl.
“You were in a troubled daydream. They seem to be habitual with you these last few days.” There was no reproof in his voice. Rather he asked to understand.
“It’s nothing, really.” Serena’s soft brown eyes, almost the color of her natural curls, darkened with embarrassment. Her fair skin flushed. She was a slender, quietly pretty girl, with a straight nose that wrinkled when she smiled. When she felt no one was watching her, her face was sad.
“I think it’s just that I’ve let myself get too upset by what’s happening to our world. And,” her smile was very sweet, “after a long winter, vacation time is near.”
“Yes, vacation always helps.” Mr. Green was carefully adjusting his glasses. “You’ve been with us five years, haven’t you?”
“Late this June,” Serena said, wondering what he meant.
“That’s long enough for me to give you a little advice, isn’t it?”
His shrewd blue eyes twinkled and Serena nodded.
“You’re still a young girl, barely twenty-six; you’re attractive. It is a waste and an insult to life to let what happened six years ago make your life a wanton waste.” His face was serious as he leaned forward, emphasizing his words. “It’s time you faced the thing squarely.”
Serena could not meet his gaze. She turned her eyes to the window. Across Montgomery Street she could see the window of another office building, and above the building the drifting May fog.
“I’ll never feel any other way,” she said in a low voice, her eyes still turned. “Something in me died.” She clenched her hands tightly as she faced her employer. “Oh, in a way, I’m over it. One has to live.” She unfolded her hands and took up her pencil. “I’ll be all right in a day or two, Mr. Green, and I won’t let it interfere with my work again.”
There was moisture in Mr. green’s eyes. “Your work hasn’t suffered. You’re the best secretary I’ve ever had or ever will have. It’s what is happening to you that concerns me.” He wiped his eyes and started to dictate.
That night she walked home to her one-room and kitchenette apartment halfway up Telegraph Hill. The fog was in, full strength, and the wind that blew it was sharp. Serena thrust her hands into the pockets of her short green jacket as she pushed her way up the hill. Once inside her top-floor room, she opened the windows to let in the cool, damp air and lit her gas burner to be warm. Summer in San Francisco, she thought, shivering.
For several days she’d been like this. Now she was fully aware that she must make a decision, one that would end the confusion in her mind. Even when she got the telegram saying that Jim Towers was missing in action over Tokyo Bay, she hadn’t gone off the deep end. She had quietly finished college in her Oregon home town and come to San Francisco to work for Mr. Green, a senior partner in a large law firm. Mr. Green had long been a friend of her father’s.
But the telegram had been the end of many things. It was no use wishing she had married Jim. He had insisted she was too young for that. She knew, with a fervent knowledge, that there would be no other man in her life. Whatever life she lived would be lived with his memory.
She was polite, sometimes friendly to the men she knew, as long as they asked for no more than a surface friendliness. Anything more sent her into a cold retreat.
As she stood by the window, watching the fog blow over the eucalyptus trees and the gray roof tops above her, she thought of what she wanted in life. Since she had come to San Francisco her father and mother had died, leaving only a married brother in the old home.
A home of her own, a house with a little land and a garden and trees, that was what she wanted. She smiled doubtfully at the thought. From her father she had inherited about two thousand dollars, which she meant to use when she wanted something badly. Once it would have made a house possible, but not today. On her salary, she was lucky to dress well and afford an apartment by herself.
“I’ll have to take a vacation soon,” she said out loud as she took off her green knit dress and green jacket and changed into a yellow padded housecoat and slippers. But where? She didn’t want to go to her brother this year. It might be, in this mood, best to go with one of her friends, perhaps a girl from the office. She must take herself in hand or she would become like old Miss Wyatt, in charge of the files. Miss Wyatt screamed at people and cried when she thought she had been offended. Yet Mr. Green kept her on because she had been with him a quarter of a century.
She opened her small refrigerator to take out a chop and vegetables. I think I’ll go out and spend the week end with Cousin Harriet and George in Meadtown, she suddenly decided, and felt better. After supper she would phone Harriet.
Harriet was her mother’s cousin, childless, and long married to George Lester. They had a small walnut farm in the beautiful San Vincente Valley. Because George had a heart condition, they lived very quietly. Serena made it a point to visit them briefly on the infrequent occasions she had someone to drive her. They made no particular fuss over her, yet she felt they were glad to see her on her rare visits.
She was finishing her dinner when the telephone rang. It was long distance, Mrs. Hale, a neighbor of Harriet’s at Meadtown. Serena had met her only a short time ago.
“I don’t want to upset you, dearie,” Mrs. Hale said in the voice of one who is bursting with the importance of her message, “but I have some bad news for you. Your cousin Harriet and her husband died today. George died early this morning, and Harriet went soon after. I knew you’d want to know.”
Serena asked for time to get a chair, her legs were so weak. “Harriet went a few hours after George, just like that,” Mrs. Hale went on, enjoying her role as newsbreaker. “I always knew poor Harriet would kill herself waiting on George like she did, but what could she do?”
Before Serena could answer, Mrs. Hale rushed on. “She lived just for George, and she couldn’t keep herself going any longer.” Then, abruptly, as if she remembered she was talking on long distance, she said, “The funeral will be Wednesday in Valley Oaks at eleven. Can you come?”
Serena assured the lady she would come and arranged for Mrs. Hale to meet her at the Valley Oaks bus station.
When she told Mr. Green the next morning, he told her to take the whole day off, and Thursday, too, if it were necessary.
“I’m sure there’ll be no need of that,” she said. “I know nothing of their affairs. The Hales are taking care of everything. They’ve known Harriet for years. I’ll be back Thursday.”
On Wednesday she awoke to another day of chilling fog. The gray mists were dispersing when she crossed the bay. By the time she reached Valley Oaks the sun was warm overhead.
Mrs. Hale, dressed in discreet black, looked disapprovingly at Serena’s smart suit of gray gabardine, and drove her to the funeral service.
After the last rites were concluded, Mrs. Hale guided Serena back to the car with a suggestion that she come to the Hale place for lunch.
“You might want to take a look at Harriet’s place,” she said. “I haven’t an idea who is getting the property, do you?”
Serena shook her head. She supposed George had relatives somewhere.
“Look,” Mrs. Hale nudged Serena, “that’s Frank Howarth. He was their lawyer. I know him well enough, I’m going to ask – look! He’s coming here!” Mrs. Hale’s excitement mounted with each word.
Serena saw a tall, bent, elderly gentleman with a worn brief case under his arm. She had noticed him looking at her during the services. He took her hand now and called her by name. He wanted to know if Mrs. Hale would bring Serena to his office. They might as well come before lunch. It wouldn’t take long.
Mrs. Hale, perspiring in her excitement, rushed Serena to the car. Serena was only mildly excited. Harriet must have left her some small bequest. She thought of the beautiful old mahogany dining room set she had often admired.
Half an hour later when they left Mr. Howarth’s office on a Valley Oaks side street, Serena was sole heir to Harriet and George Lester’s twenty acres of walnut land, house, outbuildings, farm equipment, and car. When Mr. Howarth read the will in his thin old voice, the shock was so great that she had been numb. Her first thought, upon recovering, was one of remorse because she had not visited the quiet couple more often, had not been more thoughtful of them.
“They must have been lonely,” she said to Mr. Howarth. “I didn’t know I meant anything to them.”
“They felt you were worthy of the bequest,” Mr. Howarth said dryly. He went on to say that the title to the place had been clear for a year, and that when all expenses had been paid there would be a few hundred dollars in the bank. The Lesters had spent almost everything they had on their home; their monthly annuity stopped with their deaths.
As the lawyer talked, Serena’s state of shock passed and she began to realize her good fortune. She was the owner of a pleasant home set on productive acres in one of the world’s most desirable spots. It was like a fairy story. She took a firm grip on the arm of the oak chair.
“To keep my head from floating away from me,” she said, smiling at Mr. Howarth through a mist of tears.
Then, like a quick stab of pain, she thought of Jim. How he would have loved the walnut orchard in San Vincente Valley!
“I’ve asked you three times what you are going to do now that you are a property owner,” Mrs. Hale chided Serena. They were out of town and driving through the low pass that led into San Vincente Valley. “Do you think you can run a walnut orchard? Do you know anything about it?”
“I haven’t had time to think about it.”
Serena scarcely heard her words, she was so busy trying to bring her thoughts into focus. She had always enjoyed the tree-shaded ride through the valley to Meadtown and felt a prick of envy for the people who lived in the low ranch houses. Now she belonged to the valley, with its great walnut trees above the smooth purple earth, and the green hills beyond. She noted the new subdivisions, the little white houses almost touching each other, like the trees they had uprooted. In a few minutes Mrs. Hale was through the village center and passing through the orchards. She turned her car into the lane that was now part Serena’s.
After lunch, Mr. Hale, a long retired business man, left the women alone while he napped. Mrs. Hale insisted that she drive Serena down the lane to her new home.
“Do you know who owns all the property adjoining yours and across the lane? It belongs to Jeff Landeau. He has one of the best orchards in the valley.”
Serena nodded to show she had heard. As they turned down the curved driveway, Serena felt as if she were seeing it for the first time. The bridal wreath had long since lost its white bloom, but the blue anchusas and the golden poppies made a vivid contrast against the background of blooming pyracantha hedge. The smooth, green lawn curved into borders bright with petunias, and the bank of pinks close to the white house gave out a heady perfume.
“They spent their entire lives on this garden. You’ll never be able to keep it up like Harriet did.” Mrs. Hale’s voice was discouraging. “I’d like to go in with you,” she added more cheerfully, “but I have errands to do in town. Come by when you are ready to leave.”
Serena stood on the lawn, away from the plane tree, enjoying the bright May sun. Turning her back to the house, she looked up at the trees framing the driveway. A clump of redwoods hid the butane tank, and across from them, away from the lawn, were tall pines and a huge oak tree, whose long branches protected the house from the afternoon sun.
Sighing in satisfaction, she went into the screened porch. The house was younger than she had thought, finished just before the war, the lawyer had said. It was a good house, with spacious rooms, built to last for generations. The big living room was all windows and French doors. There was a long, cool corridor with glass doors, and two bedrooms, each one larger than Serena’s apartment. The dining room faced the porch, all glass doors, and there was a big farm kitchen, even a tidy basement, with a gas furnace and shelves of fruit.
Serena saw her domain with humility. She must be worthy of the house. From now on it would be not only her home, but it must be a place of refuge for others. I will be generous with this house, she promised intensely. Walking under the walnut trees, she saw with curiosity that the leaves had a reddish tinge and were not yet in full growth. A few of the dark catkins remained on the gravelled driveway. Serena breathed deeply of the sweet air. Twenty acres of peace and privacy, all hers!
In the white barn she found a black car, only three years old, and looking like new. There was a battered pickup of prewar days, and some farm implements. She got into the car, saw the tank was full of gas. It was a good thing she had recently renewed her driver’s license. If she could find the key, she would try the car.
She got as far as the kitchen porch. A car, a shining new green pickup, was coming down the driveway. The driver was a tall man, suntanned and handsome. He was close enough for Serena to see his deep-set blue eyes and dark hair. His eyes were serious, even grave, and he had a firm mouth and strong chin. On the seat beside him was a small replica of a son, with the same smooth dark hair and unsmiling blue eyes. The two of them got out of the car and stood there on the gravelled walk in the walnut shade, looking at Serena as if she were an intruder.